This week's blog is by my good friend Ed Windhausen from my Word Weaver's group. I am thankful to walk alongside him in his writing journey and share this story from his mission trip to Zambia. His words are so vivid and compelling that I experience his emotions as I read. May his story bless you too!
A Heart of Flesh
Ezekiel 36:26, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
I thought you couldn’t die in your dreams. I had heard it said that if you did, you would die in real life. I am grateful that turned out to be false. It was the summer of 2008, and I found myself in a most unlikely place. I was on a mission trip in the bush of Zambia, Africa. That’s actually not that surprising, since I had taken the same trip the previous year. What was different this year was the work I was doing.
I had never really contemplated what it might be like to be on a chain gang in the 1920’s, but that year in Africa I found out. We were tasked with digging something called barache (bah-rah-sh). Imagine an iron rich soil that has fossilized and turned into a large vein of super hard concrete like stone. That’s barache. It’s hard and unforgiving, and our host missionaries needed us to dig up this stone and crush it into smaller pieces to create a gravel-like packable substrate for the floor of the orphanage we were helping to build. The problem was that this barache was very comfortable where it was and did not want to be disturbed. We used picks, shovels, and six-foot steel pry bars to try and coax it loose. The work was so tough that I actually wore down about two inches of the pick I was using that week. I burned myself on its tip once from the heat that had built up from the repetitive friction producing contact with the barache. It was hard work.
There were times when we would fall into this almost sleepy rhythm of lift-swing-bang, lift-swing-bang, lift-swing-bang. For a guy like me who wasn’t used to manual labor, I had to dig deep into myself to find the will to continue each hour. I had to ignore the blisters that formed, popped, and bled each day. I had to set aside my own comfort for the greater cause of the work that was being accomplished. That work was for God and His children. Wasn’t that the reason we had come to this place, to serve the Lord?
Maybe it was because I was so tired. Maybe it was because I was raw from sleeping in a tent in the bush of Africa. Likely, it was because I was focusing on Him in the midst of my suffering. Whatever the reason, the Lord chose this moment to remind of a gift He had given me four years earlier. A gift I had never acknowledged, or had chosen to push back into the recesses of my memory for some purpose not known to me on a conscious level.
My work partner Tom and I had been at it all morning, lift-swing-bang, lift-swing-bang, lift-swing-bang. It was close to lunchtime, and we had been having a conversation about our testimonies. I was sharing with him my agnostic struggles prior to accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior, relaying to him I could now see how God had been at work in many of the circumstances of that journey. He had placed people in my path that had been essential in my slow, methodical approach to faith. Over and over again He had given me the opportunities to see Him for who He truly was, love.
I will admit to being tired, we all were. But, it was more than a physical release that was about to occur. It was the realization that something pivotal had happened in my life, and I had ignored it. It was like someone pulling you to safety after a bad motor vehicle accident. Watching as the car explodes, feeling the heat, and then turning around and discovering that the person has disappeared into the crowd before you could thank them for saving your life. It was a feeling of unresolved gratitude that constantly nags at you, never letting you fully relax.
I don’t recall what triggered the memory, but I do remember that Tom was expressing how grateful he felt to have eternal salvation. I could feel the authenticity of his words, like a mist settling on my warm skin, soothing and cooling in the hot African sun. It was then that I shared with him this vision or dream I had four years prior. It was unlike any dream I had ever had. It was more thought than visual or auditory. There was no recognition of images, or discernment of sound, but there was awareness unlike anything I had ever experienced. I could feel what was happening. But, it was actually more than a feeling; it was a confident recognition of truth.
I was dead. There was no tunnel of light, no swirling colors, nothing from my memory of how death has been described by those who have claimed to return from that experience. I was just dead. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t even confused. While I had no explanation for my demise, I was at peace. It was as if I had been holding my breath forever and was finally able to exhale, but then take in a deep breath of air so sweet, so fragrant and warm, it pulled me close and soothed me from within. There was recognition in that breath that I never had to worry again, and all the anxieties I’d had in my life had been pointless. This was how it was supposed to be. This was the real life.
Tom was intrigued. He asked me what might have been going on in my life at that time. At that moment, I made the connection. I shared that the dream had come when I had finally surrendered to God and let Him into my heart. I had decided to stop fighting, stop looking for proof, stop feeling like I had to explain everything before I could be a true believer. I was tired. I didn’t want to fight it anymore. I submitted myself to His will. I stopped being hard like stone, and I softened.
This may sound theatrical, but I fell to my knees right there at the edge of that small barache pit under a grove of mwaponi trees in the Mukamba region of Zambia, and I cried. Tom became a blur through my tear soaked eyes, but I could see him smiling. He knew something powerful had just happened. It was the recognition that my heart had been transformed from something as hard as the barache we were digging, into a heart of flesh, a heart that was softened for the purposes of the Lord. I felt Tom’s hand on my shoulder, but he said nothing. There was nothing to say. I stood up, wiped my eyes, and grabbed my pick, lift-swing-bang, lift-swing-bang, lift-swing-bang.
Life in Latvia was dark. Very dark. They count hours of sunlight per year. Yes, hours, not days of sunlight. It averaged to about 30 sunny days each year. While I lived there teaching seventh and eighth grade third-culture kids, we managed not to have sunshine for five months straight over the winter. Being from Florida, the sunshine state, I got really depressed. SAD—Seasonal Affective Disorder—is real.
I sought ways to brighten the dark days. People had told me about buying a “happy lamp” that emits the same rays as natural sunlight. I wish I had taken their advice. One thing that did help was dying my hair bright red. The color added pep to my locks as it matched my coat and hat.
In late February, we finally saw the sun again. The temperature was -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit) so I wore four layers of clothes. I waddled around like the stay-puff marsh mellow woman. I'm glad I braved the cold. My face lit with joy while playing in the sunshine and soaking in vitamin D. Still, I wondered if my work was worth all the struggle.
One day when I’d hit a real low, a lady from my church back home sent me an email. She started the note with Philippians 1:3-6, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”
She explained how God had prompted her to write me to encourage me that He would finish what He’d started. The Lord hadn’t sent me to Latvia to freeze to death and languish in depression, but to use me for His kingdom purposes and glory. My main interactions were teaching American children, not the locals. Yet, my work with those kids enabled their parents to build language skills and a ministry. Also, third-culture kids have a unique problem set to straddle two countries and function as a subset of both. Their education was important for the people they would become.
Satan tries to make us doubt our calling or diminish its importance. Every role God calls us to is significant for building His kingdom. When we surrender our works to the Lord, He creates amazing results that far exceed what we can imagine. Often, I don’t see the fruit of my labor, which I think is to prevent me from swelling with pride. God deserves the glory, not my ego. Life eventually did get brighter, and the Lord brought me through to the spring. Hope and happiness sprouted in my heart and mind once more.
I let the lady from my church know how much her email encouraged me. To her, it was something little, but to me it was monumental. Her note reminded me that as long as I obeyed God, my work, no matter how menial, brought God glory. I needed that light to keep walking through the dark until the dawn appeared. The Lord's work is always worth whatever night we face because His joy comes in the morning.
This week I had the privilege to guest blog on the Word Weaver's website as part of their Valentine's Day series. Below is an excerpt with a link to the full blog.
Every year for a decade I left town on President’s Day weekend in mid-February. My excuse to colleagues was a chance to visit warmer places. In reality, I was escaping Valentine’s Day. As a single woman, that holiday is one of the most painful days of the year. My solution of traveling with a friend always let me feel special on an otherwise depressing day. Then came the year I couldn’t find anyone to go away with me.
I had asked everyone I knew if they wanted to go on a weekend getaway, and no one said yes. I felt miserable because not only was I single, but I also felt like I had no friends. I started praying about it, and perceived that God wanted me to stay home. That stung. I protested that decision with God. How dare He take away my joy during a day of hurt?! It made no sense. So, I tried again and again until I had to admit defeat.
My big plans to drive to a museum were crushed because of snow and ice on the road. I wasn’t going anywhere. Instead, I stayed on the couch at home on Valentine’s Day. I tried to make the best of it by watching several sermons online. If I couldn’t get away, at least I could fill my heart with truth from God’s Word.
It was a quiet day. After the sermons, I sat reading my Kindle. The snow had stopped, but it was still too cold to venture outdoors. Then I heard a knock on my door. I was startled and slightly suspicious. The Amazon guys usually don’t wait for me to get my package.
I peered out my peephole and saw my pastor and his wife holding flowers. Surprise! I opened the door and received a beautiful bouquet of daisies and pink roses. There are a number of single women in my church. My church leaders had braved the ice to ensure that we felt loved and appreciated. Their act of generosity turned a day that usually depresses me into one of joy and loveliness.
My pastor and his wife didn’t have to play flower delivery people. They could have stayed warm in their own house. Instead, they sought to care for others more than their own convenience. Philippians 2:4 says, “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” My focus that day had been on what I wanted to feel good. Not on how I could love others well.
After they left, I sent “Happy Galentine’s Day” texts to several friends. While this effort was small compared to what my pastor and his wife had done, it could still bring a smile to someone’s face. It always feels good to be seen and known. And you know what? I also felt really good to do something nice for someone. Kindness blesses both the giver and the recipient.
Indeed, Acts 20:35b reminds us that Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Sharing God’s love with others delights our hearts. God gave the ultimate gift in sending His Son Jesus to take the penalty our sins deserved. Because it stirs the Father’s heart to give to us, we who are made in the image of God are likewise awakened to joy when we give.
May we seek to see those who may be overlooked. May we shed the Father’s lavish love on them as we would want to be loved ourselves. I pray we spread seeds of joy that grow into surprise flowers for those near and far.
Our world is starving for love. People feel empty inside and search for someone to complete them. Online dating and apps provide modern options to hanging around bars to meet someone, but they can also lead to frustration. People want lasting relationships, but many are willing to settle for one-night stands.
Valentine’s Day can hold a strong sting for singles because society pushes relationships as the norm. Yet some people in relationships aren’t feeling fulfilled. They put all their expectations for love, joy, and happiness in one person, which winds up in disaster.
What happens when he doesn’t bring flowers anymore? What about when she quits fussing with her hair and makeup to look her best? The infatuation stage only lasts so long before people take off their masks.
Even in committed relationships, no one can ever fulfill all the other person’s expectations. What if he misses his daughter’s piano recital because he is late at work—again? What if she refuses to cook dinner because she has other competing priorities? People are fallible and will let us down at some point, whether they want to or not. They can’t help it. They are human.
The only One who can truly fill all our hopes and dreams is God. First John 4:19 says, “We love Him because He first loved us” (NKJV). We have the capacity to love God and others only because our Creator us loved us first. He intimately knit us in our mother’s wombs so that we could grow to worship Him. We were made with God sized holes in our heart that only He can fill. When we try to fill our hearts with anything but God, it is like trying to shove a square peg in a round hole. It won’t fit.
God has a bigger heart for us than we could ever deserve. Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (NKJV). He knows the depths of our hearts and loves us the same.
When we realize how much God loves us despite all our sins, we can’t help but love Him back. We can never earn God’s love. All our righteousness is like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Even if we tried our best every day to be perfect, we’d fail. Reality shows that we are fallen beings, under the curse of sin and death. So, we confess our need for a Savior and experience a love like no other.
God’s love floods our every fiber when we surrender our hearts to Jesus. Then, we discover the love we have fruitlessly sought for elsewhere. Even though life won’t always be easy after receiving Christ’s forgiveness, He will never drop us on our heads. If we want true love, we need to put all our hopes and expectations in Christ. Only God can complete us.
May we grow in love for God and others. Let’s make Him our first love because He first loved us.
Our world experienced a lot of upheaval over the last year. A global pandemic followed by race riots followed by a contested election did not leave much space for peace. Some of my friends are speculating that the end times have come and Jesus is coming back soon. I honestly have no idea when He is returning. Matthew 25:13 says, ““Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming” (NKJV). However, I do know is that Jesus is coming one day sooner today than He was yesterday. And I need to be ready.
Sharing Christ is one way I can prepare for the Lord’s return. With the new year, I realize the urgency in sharing the good news of Jesus with my family, friends, and everyone I meet. My life is to serve as an arrow to point people to Christ. Without Him there’s no purpose and no hope. I pray for the spread the gospel, not COVID.
Matthew 28:19-20 says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (NKJV). Jesus commands us to make disciples of all nations. This goes beyond trying to save souls from hell to ensuring that they know what they believe and why. Discipleship teaches people how to study the God’s Word and apply it so they can know and grow in Christ.
Personally, I started to study the Bible with a few friends last year who were interested in knowing more about Jesus. I pray I remain open to whoever God puts in my path to share the gospel with this year, because we can’t share enough. We must always be “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) since the world will know we are Christians by our love.
Unfortunately, some Christians can come across as overzealous, and have tried to beat the truth into people’s heads by banging their Bibles. I've been guilty of this myself, but realize I can’t argue someone into salvation. Instead, Colossians 4:6 says, “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one” (NKJV). I like the idea of combining grace with salt. It’s the sweet and salty combo of a salted caramel hot chocolate. We need the love from grace, but the salt adds truth to enhance the flavor.
Where will you begin? Who has God put on your heart to share the gospel with in 2021? May the Lord make us ready to give an answer for the hope that is in us and share the best news ever with those around us. May His Spirit guide us each day so that as many people as possible can enter God’s kingdom when the Lord returns.
The year 2020 will never be forgotten. From COVID-19 to race riots to the election, 2020 held many painful and unexpected moments. Personally, I had a pretty tough 2019 and had asked God for a break in 2020. That didn’t happen. Instead, I had a breakup of my relationship and a near breakdown from stress at work.
Thankfully, God is bigger than all of my struggles. 1 John 4:4 says, “You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” Nothing this world can throw at me can stand up to the greatness of God. Nothing. God has shown Himself faithful despite all my difficulties. He gave me peace about the breakup and a fantastic new job.
I’m sure that many of you had your own hardships last year. They certainly weren’t easy to miss. Yet, God has seen us all through to 2021. I don’t have a crystal ball and can’t predict all that this year will hold. Fortunately, I know who holds my future. Philippians 1:6 says, “Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” The good things God started in my life long before 2020, He will see through until He calls me home to heaven. He will do the same for you.
Instead of focusing on the bad from last year, I wanted to list some good things that happened despite the storms. My church family encouraged my heart when I was depressed about work. I joined three separate prayer groups, thereby working my faith muscles as we watched God move through corporate prayer. I was lonely during the quarantine, and the Lord sent my sister to live with me and provided her with a great job. I also have many solid evangelism opportunities I wouldn’t have had without COVID-19. God is always working in our lives. It is just His timing and ways that befuddle us sometimes (Isaiah 55:8-9).
My challenge to us as we reflect on 2020, instead of listing what went wrong, let’s find the blessings in disguise. Find ways to see how God has used your brokenness to build your trust in His provision. If you can’t see any immediate blessings, ask God to show you what they are. You probably have more than you know. May the Lord’s graciousness continue to flow on the days before us as 2021 unfolds.
This year has surfaced a problem that many struggle with but few wish to admit – loneliness. In a world of social media, we should feel more connected than ever. Yet, people put their best face forward online, hiding the bruises behind lighting filters on their cameras. Also, with COVID banishing the ability to meet in person for long stretches and only small gatherings remaining even now, it has been hard to not be lonely.
Sometimes, the enemy of our souls tries to whisper that God has abandoned us. Fortunately, that is a lie. I am never alone. God promised in Hebrews 13:5b “For He Himself has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (NKJV). Even when I can’t be with family and friends, the Lord is always with me. Especially during the earlier months of the year when I was stuck inside, I often felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. As I read the Bible, truth took on a nearly tangible form and comforted me.
I am so thankful that Jesus chose to come down to live among us here on dirty earth. The mediator that Job had begged God for (Job 9:33) was born in a humble stable some 2000 years ago. Mathew 1:23 says, “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which is translated, ‘God with us’” (NKJV).
Jesus emptied Himself of the glories of heaven and took on human form so He could be God with us. He ate, drank, got tired, faced opposition, and even wept when His friend died. Jesus experienced all the ups and downs of human life and can sympathize with our weaknesses; now we can approach the throne of grace with confidence to find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16). That was the beauty of Jesus living on earth. His death and resurrection bridged the gap from the Father’s heart to humankind forever, paving the way for reconciliation.
When Christ returned to heaven, He told us “lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:30 NKJV). Jesus didn’t leave us orphans, but sent the Holy Spirit to indwell us (John 14:16-18). We as Christians now become the temple of God. While Jesus may have never faced the current ills of society with social media and a pandemic, He still knows what we are experiencing. When we call out to Him, the same one whose cry pierced the night in a manger long ago, will hold the cries of our hearts. This Christmas season and throughout the year, I pray we will feel the presence of our Immanuel, God with us and know that He is near.
Teachers around the United States and the world are trying to cope with huge hurdles to educate young minds of the next generation. Some teachers lead in person, but are unable to touch or even approach the students in their classrooms. Other teachers struggle to teach online with children who ignore instructions or cannot grasp concepts over the Internet. My heart goes out to every teacher seeking to overcome in these trying times.
If we desire a country where the leaders of tomorrow are prepared to take on the world’s challenges, we need to pray for our teachers. They are under enormous stress and our prayers can help.
I want to focus on all teachers: kindergarten through high school levels in the public and private school level, including their spiritual instruction of these students. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it” (NKJV). Young minds need solid Christian education so they can become adults who have a foundation of truth at their core. The alarming amount of Biblical illiteracy among not just school-aged children, but even in the adults of this country saddens me. If we don’t know God’s Word, how can we expect to obey it?
That’s why I also pray for Sunday School teachers and Bible study teachers globally. James 3:1 says, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment” (NKJV). We shouldn’t let that scare us off and claim ignorance. Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance allows sin to creep in unaware and leaves us vulnerable to Satan’s lies. We need the truth of God’s Word to permeate our hearts and minds so we can obey God and be a positive influence on this land. May God to raise us Bible teachers in churches that will rightly divide the Word of truth, even if it is not popular in secular society, so that Christians can know and obey God.
Dear God, I pray for teachers in public, private, charter schools, and home schools. I pray for them wisdom, discernment, and patience as they face new challenges this year. Please keep the teachers who meet with their students in person safe and healthy. Enable teachers working online to develop new methods to engage their students so everyone can understand and retain the lessons. God, I also pray for the spiritual education of the citizens of this nation. God, please call forth Christian teachers to train people to know and apply God’s Word correctly. May America be filled with people who are strong in all areas of education, especially spiritual education to know God better. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
One evening while teaching children at my church, I walked by a little boy Jesse who looked sad. I asked him what was wrong. He just shook his head. Since he wouldn't share his problems, I switched tactics. I put my hand out and asked him to count my fingers. His eyebrows went up. I asked him again to count my fingers.
“One, two, three, four, five.” His eyes scanned across my fingertips as he counted.
I asked him to stick out his hand. I touched the tops of his fingers and said, “Jesus, family, friends, food, and books.” I explained that listing things you are thankful for helps you feel better when you are sad. No matter how bad things were, you can remember that there are good things too. Then I had him list five things that he was grateful to have.
“Mom, dad, candy, presents, and fun.” A small smile cracked the edge of his mouth.
“See, that wasn’t so hard.” I smiled back at him.
Honestly, I’d never counted my blessings on my hands before that night, but I’ve found it encouraging ever since. Whenever I saw Jesse after that, I stuck out my hand and had him count his blessings. The exercise brought both of us joy.
Psalm 107:1 says, “Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.” When we realize that God’s mercy never ends, we rejoice to thank God for how good He is to us. Jesse didn’t always list the same five things every time, but he always found something to be thankful for.
My list of things I am thankful for has also changed over the years. Sometimes I just list the first things I think of, but other times I take a more sophisticated approach. I call it a handful of gratitude.
First, I wiggle my thumb. The thumb is the anchor finger to thank God for creating us and writing our stories. For this finger I express gratitude for the greatness of God in the beauty of creation. I look at trees, rivers, or a beautiful sunset to drink in His beauty. Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork.” If God took so much effort to paint beauty across the skies, then He can write the story of my life with loveliness too.
Next, I move my pointer finger. I think of something that points me to back to joy and truth. I thank God for His Word that brings truth into my life. Colossians 2:6-7 says, “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving” (NKJV). When I abide in the Word of God, His truth keeps me firmly grounded so I can overflow in joy for His character and His love.
My middle finger reminds me of the things that stand above me. Psalm 36:5 says, “Your mercy, O Lord, is in the heavens; Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds” (NKJV). God’s mercy stretches high above me and is vaster than I can conceive. When I rest in the assurance of a love that big, nothing that can out match God’s love.
Then my ring finger stands for commitment. Thank God for the new covenant where my relationship with Him doesn’t depend on me providing animal sacrifices over and over again. Hebrews 9:15 says, “And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance” (NKJV). Jesus made a way for us to be reconciled to God once for all through His death on the cross. God’s love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:8) and even when I am not faithful to Him, He will still be faithful to me (2 Timothy 2:13). God’s commitment to me once I surrender to Him ensures me a place in heaven and an abundant life on earth.
Last comes the pinky. This finger represents being thankful for small things I take for granted. Psalm 92:1, “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, And to sing praises to Your name, O Most High” (NKJV). During COVID, my church sent its worship sets over YouTube for us to sing at home. I realized all those times I had sung at church had been a big blessing. Even if it wasn’t the same, I would sing praise to God and glorify His name wherever I was.
In this season of gratitude with Thanksgiving around the corner, I realize that thankfulness is always a necessity. This year has held a lot of unexpected heartache and hurt for me, as I am sure it has for many others. Despite the hardships, God has blessed me so much. My hand is literally attached to my body so I can put it in front of my face for a reality check to thank God instead of focusing on what I lack. May we feel God’s hand on ours as we count our blessings every day.
Joanna Eccles has led Bible studies for over ten years and completed the year-long C. S. Lewis Fellows Program. She is passionate about discipleship and helping people know God better. Joanna enjoys coffee, traveling, and reading, and currently lives in Virginia.